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Park Versus Synagogue

May 9, 2009 | by Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

A neighborhood petition taught me how the Torah encompasses all areas of existence.

I live in a predominantly religious neighborhood in Jerusalem. One evening, a young girl knocked on my door and asked me to sign a petition protesting a proposed plan to build a synagogue in a small, local park. I've always considered myself somewhat of an environmentalist, but I hesitated to sign. After all, this is Jerusalem, the holy city, and we're talking about a synagogue. Should not its sanctity take precedence over trees and bushes?

I told the girl that I needed to learn more about the issues before I could sign her petition, and feeling very pious, I closed the door.

To my surprise, I later discovered that the petition drive was organized by the wife of one of the leading rabbis of the community! Her campaign was successful; the park was spared. Although those wanting to build the synagogue had offered to create a park in a new area, their opponents did not feel that the offer was realistic. In the end, the proponents of the synagogue were the ones who were forced to find another site.

The Torah mandates open spaces around cities, to provide an atmosphere of beauty.

As I learned in conversations with a number of Torah scholars, the rights of those using the park take precedence over the rights of those wanting to build the synagogue. The people using the park had already established a claim, and the park was meeting a vital recreational need -- one which contributed to the health and well-being of the residents. The scholars also pointed out that there were other synagogues in our neighborhood, and those wanting to be independent of those synagogues had no right to do so at the expense of others.

In fact, one neighborhood scholar, Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, in his book "Masterplan," points out that an ancient example of an urban park can be found in the Torah's mandate to design open spaces around the cities that belonged to the tribe of Levi (Numbers 35:2-5). According to the classical biblical commentator, Rashi, part of these open spaces was to provide an atmosphere of beauty -- a greenbelt around the cities -- therefore, no building was allowed in this designated area, and agricultural activity was also forbidden.

Maimonides notes that these regulations applied not only to these Levitical cities, but to all the tribes of Israel (Shmita-Yovel 13:5). Thus, long before the development of modern parks, the Torah gave city residents access to the natural beauty of the countryside.

Sphere of Religion?

Some of these arguments were not new to me, and I wondered why I hesitated to sign that petition. Perhaps it's because I grew up with the western idea that Judaism is a religion, and therefore its activities are centered in a house of worship. So shouldn't the synagogue get preference?!

"Religion" implies a sphere of human activity from which the Divine is excluded.

If we examine, however, the vocabulary of biblical Hebrew, we will not find a word for "religion." The term does not appear in the Torah, because to the Torah, everything is religious. To set aside a part of life and call it "religion" is the very negation of the holistic philosophy of the Torah, implying there is a sphere of human activity from which the Divine is excluded.

This idea is expressed by the late Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld, a member of the London Rabbinical Court, in his introduction to Rabbi Hirsch's "Horeb":

To be religious in the Torah sense means to conceive of all human activities as falling within one scheme... The farmer behind the plough, the workman on the bench, the merchant with his goods, and the scholar with his thoughts -- they all have an equal opportunity of serving God as much as the priest in the Temple; perhaps even more so.

In the conception of the Torah, only spiritual victory which is won in the arena of life is worth achieving; for the highest aim of Jewish teaching is the sanctification of life in all its aspects.

This is not to deny the central role of the synagogue, for within the synagogue -- just as within the ancient Temple -- is the ark containing the Torah, the covenant at Sinai. We enter the synagogue not only to pray, but to renew our covenant with the Torah; however, we leave the synagogue in order to apply the Torah to life. A park can therefore become an arena of Divine service, and in the case of my neighborhood petition, the Torah chooses a park over a synagogue.

In this spirit, the Torah is described as a "Tree of Life" (Proverbs 3:18), for the mitzvot of the Torah encompass all areas of our existence. Even the trees in a park.

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